Tumblr’s Teenaged, Double-Edged Sword

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im ddeleting the internet [sic]“: A telling re-blog from a teenaged girl on the blogging platform turned social networking site Tumblr, in a chain of re-postings that had her pondering Tumblr’s impact on her life twenty years from now, when her passing, immature thoughts become fodder for a discussion among her boss and colleagues at some imagined future workplace.

The fact that Tumblr speaks to this younger demographic, and in particular teenage girls slightly more so than boys, is known. Why that is the case is something which many are still scratching their heads over, even as Tumblr begins to focus on generating revenue from this very audience, whose online behavior makes it tricky for advertisers who want to connect.

How do teenagers waste hours upon hours consuming Tumblr?“, a confused parent once asked on another time-wasting site, the Q&A resource known as Quora. The top answer, posted by “Anonymous,” claims to be from a teenaged user of Tumblr, though it could just as easily be a sneaky marketing ploy from the startup itself. But it speaks some truths nonetheless.

Tumblr, wrote the poster, “seems like a freedom, as weird as that may sound.”

“Unlike Facebook, I have a clean slate,” this person explained. “I really have found myself starting to have my own opinions. These, in some cases, greatly differ from relatives or friends, people who used to greatly influence my opinions.”

Whether or not “anon” was a real Tumblr user, or even a real teenager, it’s an apt enough explanation as to why the site has found footing among the young and hormonal. Though worries that a boss might peruse online indiscretions may one day come to pass, Tumblr users often use pseudonyms or only first names, making their blogs harder to find by the prying eyes of parents or HR, for that matter.

NYEH NYEH NYEH

Tumblr doesn’t owe its success among teens solely because of its pseudonymous qualities. That helps, but, more simply, it has become the digital upgrade to that demographic’s earlier tools for cut-and-pasted self-discovery: the repurposing of media and content to reflect their interests and fandoms, likes and hates, newly forming opinions, and more.

Read through teenaged Tumblrdom as a grown-up, and you’ll soon feel very, very old.

“i haven’t had my phone on ring for like 3 years,” muses “Aubrey,” who also once reblogged “what the frick is friendster.”

Don’t worry, Aubrey, you don’t need to know.

~~~~

The real answer to the surging teenaged use of the site lies not in the lengthy Quora explanations, but in the examples of the odd, offbeat, and yes, sometimes inappropriate content kids are sharing.

BASK IN MY FIERCENESSTumblr blogs tend to lack the glossy, professional, high-minded design of other social networking sites, including the behemoth that is Facebook and the SMS-inspired Twitter. If anything, these teenaged Tumblrs harken back to earlier web days where users built their own pages on AngelFire and Geocities, with atrocious backgrounds, upgraded cursors, and dancing GIF images galore. GIFs, in fact, are so hugely popular on Tumblr that the company even began experimenting with GIF-based ads.

The teen blogs are also reminiscent of MySpace, featuring often same general gaudiness, and the spewing of content on top of content, like the layers of photos and other decorations teens used to tack up on cork bulletin boards and bedroom walls.

Tumblr now serves that purpose, and more.

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At the risk of dating myself, I’ll reveal that I was teenaged in the pre-Web era. We didn’t have Tumblr then, but rather composition notebooks, glossy magazines, and scissors. We had mean girl-like cliques to rebel against, passions, complaints, and in-jokes. We liked boys. We worried about our looks and clothing and hairstyles. We dissed our teachers and our parents. We wrote short stories. And we expressed ourselves on paper with scrapbooks, torn magazine collages, and shared notes in passed around “slam books.” (To be fair, we weren’t writing truly awful things, really – that’s just what these books were called.)

Now children have the Internet. And Tumblr has become their platform for those universal, familiar urges at self-expression falling somewhere in between the diary, the slam book and the cork board. Notes on Tumblr blogs range from mundane (“ive been telling myself ill start my homework soon for the last 4 hours,”) to the confessional (“a cute necklace for school tomorrow” which accompanies a picture of a noose – a note whose message would terrify parents and other adults, but appears to only be commentary on the horrors of high school life).

cicnco de mayo | illuminhotty_ DON’T YOU WISH IF YOU TYPED A WEB...

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According to Pew Internet’s study from earlier this year, 13 percent of Internet users ages 18-29 use Tumblr, while only 5 percent of those 30-49 do, 3 percent of those 50-64, and a (surprising) 1 percent of those 65 and older do.

Demographic data from Quantcast further drives home just how youthful a site Tumblr has become. 21 percent of its audience is under 18, 30 percent is 18 to 24, and 22 percent is 25 to 34. Then the numbers taper off. Site users don’t tend to have kids of their own, make somewhere between $0 and $50,000 (66 percent do), have either no college (41 percent) or college backgrounds (48 percent), and tend to reflect a more ethnically diverse makeup.

are those butts i see

Now Tumblr is seriously looking to monetize this audience, proffering a platform for brand advertising which CEO David Karp last week explained is meant to be a place for advertisers to “build amazing, interactive ads.”

“We have a story that really, truly stands apart from the other big networks right now,” he said. Other networks are harnessing user intent, then pointing users to little blue links. “Creative brand advertising has had nowhere to live on the web,” he said. Ten out of the ten top Hollywood studios advertise on Tumblr now, Karp also noted, while speaking, too, of ads that inspire people to go out and purchase, designed by imaginative types who went into advertising because of their “Mad Men-like aspirations.”

He may have played down the demographics’ role in Tumblr’s advertising equation during this discussion, but the site’s teen audience is too powerful to ignore: there are some 30 million U.S. teens with over $200 billion in buying power. They might not all be on Tumblr, of course, but if brands can reach a portion of this group, they have the potential to tap into a non-trivial source of disposable income from heavy-duty consumers. After all, the U.S. is Tumblr’s top traffic source.

Tumblr’s future, for now, seems to be closely tied to its young adult demographic, their whims, and perhaps even their historical aversion to online ads. This audience has grown up connected, is often skeptical and cynical when it comes to brand advertising, and tends to toe a fine line between wanting to express their individuality and wanting to fit in.

It’s not an easy group to reach, which makes Tumblr’s revenue potential tricky to pin down. Too much or the wrong kind of advertising, and a fickle teen audience may find a new home elsewhere. Though Tumblr is now home to over 100 million blogs, if a good chunk belong to teens, it’s difficult to count that as serious traction –  today’s teens are less committed to their digital creations than adults, having already invented methods like “whitewalling” and “super-logoff” to erase and hide their Facebook pages, and are now turning to “ephemeral” messaging apps like Snapchat, which delete their communications upon viewing.

They understand just how easy it is to deactivate an account, walk away and begin again. Content is disposable, and the web is an impermanent platform to build upon, they’ve found. These are decidedly radical views.

For Tumblr, the shiftiness of the very group it has found a home among is one of the riskier aspects of what appears to otherwise be a strong, fast-growing and potentially very valuable service. Its revenue plan is to provide a blank slate to its users and advertisers alike (“…we want to give [advertisers] the space to do anything – a four-second loop, an hour and a half video, a high-res panorama,” Karp explained last week.).

But Tumblr will need to be careful with the results of those advertisers’ efforts. Overdone marketing messages could sour Tumblr’s most engaged users on their online hangout. Done well, however, Tumblr could endear itself to its reblog-happy user base even more, connecting aspirational imagery and content with those who are still young enough to dream they can spend their way into new feelings. Whether they’ll eventually end up “ddeleting” those feelings or not.

(Image credit, top: kootation.com; edited version)